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Chasing shadows: Can technology save the slaves it snared?

"Traffickers can hide among the sheer volume online," said Dan Parkinson, an officer at Britain's anti-slavery police unit.

Updated: 21-06-2018 11:40 IST

For Filipina teenager Ruby, a Facebook message offering a job in a cyber cafe across the country seemed too good to be true.

It was.

Days later, the 16-year-old orphan was dragged in front of a webcam by her new employers and forced to perform sex acts for clients - becoming another captive in the growing global slave trade to be lured, trapped and abused through technology.

"It was like a bomb exploded ... I had been totally fooled," Ruby, now 21, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the back of an empty church in Tagaytay city in the Philippines.

"I felt degraded and disgusted - I blamed myself," she said. "I was forced to do things you could not imagine a 16-year-old having to endure."

Modern technology - be it mundane messaging apps or complex cryptocurrencies - is fuelling the modern-day slave trade by enabling traffickers to ensnare more victims, expand their illicit empires, and outfox law enforcement, insiders say.

With a click, tap or a swipe - it's all at their fingertips.

Now experts wonder if the same high-tech toolkit can be used against the traffickers to rescue victims and stop slavery.

"Traffickers can obscure what they do, alter their tactics and change their codes," said Wade Shen, programme manager at the U.S. Department of Defense's research agency (DARPA).

"But we are good at keeping up with them despite these tricks," he added. "This is a cat-and-mouse kind-of-game."

Enticing people with jobs on Facebook, selling victims for sex on marketplace websites, tracking slaves via webcam and their phones: tech underpins an industry estimated to control 40 million people and generate annual profits of $150 billion.

From factories and fisheries to nail bars and migrant camps, more people are believed to be in slavery now than ever before.

The average modern slave is bought for just $90 - against a price tag of $40,000 about 200 years ago - researchers say.

"Technology has lowered the bar of entry to the criminal world, which has had an expansive effect on modern slavery," said Rob Wainwright, a British ex-diplomat, who ran Europe's policing agency Europol for nine years until this year.

Rising internet use - 4 billion people were online last year up from 2.5 billion in 2012 - means many more potential victims, as well as a widening worldwide pool of customers to be tapped.

The global spread of cheap, fast internet and surging smartphone ownership has taken slavery into a new age.

This high-tech leap leaves police and prosecutors chasing shadows in a virtual world as they strive to meet a United Nations goal to end forced labour and modern slavery by 2030.

"Technology is taking slavery into a darker corner of the world where law enforcement techniques and capabilities are not as strong as they are offline," added Wainwright, now a senior partner at accountancy firm Deloitte's cyber security practice.

With modern slavery now regarded as a major global threat, experts are asking if digital tools - from blockchain to satellites - can help turn the tide as law enforcement, civil society, banks, businesses, and techies take on the traffickers.


The world's top police agencies, Europol and Interpol, are ramping up operations as slavery emerges in cities everywhere.

The former - which polices Europe - saw a 14 percent increase in cross-border slavery and trafficking cases in 2017, with more than 50 top priority operations against the crimes.

Interpol has rescued about 850 suspected victims of slavery and arrested at least 60 potential traffickers in major crackdowns in West Africa and Central America in the last year.

However, human traffickers are often at least one step ahead of police, who often lack computing expertise and experience, are unfamiliar with modern tech, and are hindered by limited international cooperation to crack cases, according to insiders.

"We have this online Wild West where people are exploiting others with impunity in plain sight," said Nazir Afzal, a lawyer and former British chief prosecutor, who fought some of the biggest cases involving sex slavery and child abuse in Britain.

Yet technology may be a double-edged sword for slavemasters as law enforcement agencies get up to speed on the latest tools.

For human traffickers leave behind digital fingerprints that can be traced, while modern tech - from satellites and eye-scanners to blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) - could boost global efforts to eradicate forced labour and sex slavery.

Blockchain's digital ledger technology is being trialled to protect children in Moldova, and workers in Coca-Cola's sugar supply chains, while Thailand has turned to satellites to tackle forced labour among fishermen in its lucrative seafood industry.

But it's not all high-tech in the fight against traffickers.

Video conferencing is enabling trafficking victims to give evidence remotely in cross-border cases in India, Bangladesh and Nepal, while employment websites in southeast Asia are helping maids seeking work abroad avoid enslavement by abusive bosses.

Abused, hit and treated like an animal by her first employer in Hong Kong, discovering one such site afforded Filipino maid Genelie Millan options for the first time in her working life.

"When I first arrived (at the new employer), I felt at home straightaway - the kids kept hugging me and were very excited," said the 39-year-old, who left the Philippines in 2010 for work.

"They treat me like their family, they trust me a lot."

Modern technology has the potential to break the dominance of traffickers and slavemasters over their victims, said Luis deBaca, a U.S. lawyer and former ambassador who led the government's anti-trafficking efforts under President Obama.

"Early-stage technologies really helped traffickers to thrive in their business," deBaca said. "Now, it's our turn."


Technology has helped modern slave drivers reach out farther and faster to advance their lucrative trade in human beings.

Social media aids recruitment, stolen credit cards finance travel, victims can be monitored virtually and sold online before proceeds are laundered - electronically, of course.

Fresh victims can be recruited, transported worldwide and trapped in slavery in just days - compared to months in the past - with police often barely able to react, criminal analysts say.

About 600 trafficking routes globally have been identified - in every region of the world - an increase of almost a quarter between 2007 and 2014, according to the latest U.N. statistics.

Instead of lurking in malls, train stations, homeless shelters and brothels to find vulnerable people, traffickers have a plethora of digital tools to target potential victims.

"Take Moldova, for example, in the past you could visit any village or town, identify the middlemen and find out what was happening," said Radu Cucos, an official at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), a security watchdog.

"Now, you cannot do that ... everything is hidden online."

Every day, hundreds of billions of messages are sent, posts written and calls made over apps and websites such as Facebook, Whatsapp, and Skype - the perfect hiding place for traffickers.

"Facebook is really a primary social media medium for traffickers to engage susceptible and vulnerable victims into the trade," said Kevin Campbell, vice president of global operations at U.S.-based anti-trafficking group The Exodus Road.

Traffickers tend to advertise victims over listings and sexual services websites rather than the dark web - part of the internet beyond the reach of search engines - as this offers them a far bigger pool of potential buyers, according to police.

The vast reams of content online, and the encrypted nature of modern tech - police in many nations can intercept phone but not WhatsApp calls - provides cover and a cloak for traffickers.

"Traffickers can hide among the sheer volume online," said Dan Parkinson, an officer at Britain's anti-slavery police unit.

Tech is also helping criminals to evade detection in the offline world as they can plot and perform abuse from home - such as cybersex child trafficking where sexual exploitation is broadcast around the world to paying customers, charities say.

In the Philippines - a major source nation - local abusers and global clients from Australia to Canada are outsmarting police by mixing up payment methods, using cryptocurrencies, and streaming over encrypted livestreams that are tough to trace.

"Exploitation begins online ... but often leads into offline physical sex exploitation, (and) trafficking," said Lotta Sylwander, country head for the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF) based in the Philippines. "And the victims are getting younger."


Facebook - which owns WhatsApp - said its security experts pull content relating to trafficking, and work with law enforcement, civil society and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to share findings and report crime.

Microsoft - the parent of Skype - said it funds research to learn how criminals misuse tech, develops software to spot child sex exploitation, and collaborates with other tech firms and police to refer crimes for follow-up and prosecutions.

"While these efforts are not a perfect solution, we continuously invest in new ways to address the problem ... child sexual exploitation is a horrific crime," a spokesman said.

Teams from tech giants including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Uber united last month for an annual hackathon to develop and test tools to combat online child sex trafficking.

Police and cyber security analysts say cooperation from web companies in tackling human trafficking is inconsistent - but that new U.S. legislation could change the landscape.

The law penalises website operators that facilitate online sex trafficking, and makes it easier for prosecutors and victims to sue sites that keep exploitative material on their platforms - if they can be shown to have knowingly done so.

Yet this could simply spur traffickers to advertise their victims on sites run by overseas companies in countries which are out of the reach of U.S. authorities, legal experts say.

"That is really scary," said Maureen Guirguis Kenny, co-director of the Human Trafficking Law Clinic at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. "That's the dark side of this."


Internet giants aside, law enforcement agencies are also teaming up with banks, charities, and tech and data analysts to utilise diverse networks to identify and track the traffickers.

Financial institutions in the United States and Europe - which are required to report suspected illegal activity - are working together to share data and develop software to spot and disrupt human trafficking, and help police prosecute the crime.

"Traffickers use various accounts across several nations and transfer small amounts to move money through banks undetected," said James Heinzman, an executive vice president at Israeli-based cybersecurity and big data analytics company ThetaRay.

"We are seeing unprecedented sophistication from traffickers in terms of laundering money," the financial crime expert added.

A fearful customer, a flurry of late-night transactions or suspicious documents; banks look out for patterns among regular purchases, from cosmetics and rent to food and fuel, as traffickers often use victims' accounts to run their businesses.

"So you don't see normal activity for a woman - buying normal things like buying groceries and cosmetics ... but advertising online, fast-food, travel, hotels, frequent taxis," said Peter Warrack, formerly of Canadian-based Bank of Montreal.

"It's not what you see, as much as what you don't see," added the former director of anti-money laundering at the bank.

Banks are using machine learning algorithms to look beyond transactions and examine how suspects access their accounts, the digital footprint of their device, and other less obvious signs.

But the odds of finding red flags are slim.

Less than 1 percent of the estimated $1.5 trillion plus laundered by criminals worldwide each year through the financial system is frozen or confiscated, according to UNODC statistics.

"This is not a case of looking for a needle in a haystack - it's more like a needle in a stack of needles," Heinzman added.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)